17 September 2005

Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers

My thanks are due to a friend and reader of Dissoi Blogoi, who just wrote to draw my attention to what I agree is an excellent essay by Andrea Nightingale, "Sages, Sophists, and Philosophers: Greek Wisdom Literature" (in Oliver Taplin, ed. Literature in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A New Perspective, OUP, 2000).

Nightingale argues that the presocratics are best understood as 'sages' who competed with one another, as well as with Homer and Hesiod, to be accounted 'wise men'. Their writings are records of 'performances' by which these thinkers, in a time before university degrees and other credentials, hoped to "put themselves on the map as intellectual authorities or 'masters of truth'."

Nightingale's remarks nicely complement my post, 'The Analysis of Presocratic Thought', and subsequent readers' comments:

In fact, scholars often ascribe to the early Ionian thinkers the heroic feat of liberating philosophic discourse from the shadowy realms of 'mythos' (since their 'naturalistic' accounts of the cosmos rejected the poetic accounts that attributed causality to the weddings and wars of the gods). But the many scholarly attempts to trace the movement from poetry to philosophy--'from mythos to logos'--have foundered on the problem of defining the intrinsic qualities of 'myth' and of 'rational argumentation', and of identifying texts that are either purely mythic or purely analytic. Since the Greek poets were quite capable of constructing arguments, and the 'philosophers' were unable to avoid metaphor and myth, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between mythos and logos. To be sure, we see in the Ionians a new way of thinking about the world; but we cannot say that their accounts are devoid of any mythical notions. What we can say is that these thinkers adopted a critical attitude towards received wisdom and were prized for their original speculations.
Nightingale additionally makes the extremely valuable point that the thinkers who are attacked by presocratics are presumably, therefore, up to the same thing; in their attacks, then, the presocratics reveal their understanding of themselves:
It is worth noting that Xenophanes attacks Homer explicitly, and Herakleitos inveighs not only against the poets Homer, Hesiod, and Archilochos, but also against Hekataios (a proto-historian ...), Xenophanes, and Pythagoras. Such attacks remind us that these thinkers conceived of themselves as rivalling 'wise men' in general rather than the specialized group of intellectuals who were later called philosophers. The fact that Herakleitos' opponents include poets and prose writers, as well as a religious/political guru such as Pythagoras, gives us a good idea of the breadth of 'wisdom' that he himself recognized as authoritative.